Just a Picture of Coffee Can Give Your Heart Rate, and Brain, a Lift

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Eugene Chan, PhD
Senior Lecturer in Marketing
Monash Business School
Monash University Australia and 

Sam Maglio PhD
Associate Professor of Marketing
Department of Management
University of Toronto 

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? 

Response: The physiological effects of coffee and caffeine consumption have been well-studied, but we were interested in the psychological effects.

Especially in Western societies, there is a mental association between coffee and arousal – that coffee is an arousing beverage. This led us to ask, might this association itself produce the psychological “lift” without actually drinking beverages? We found that it does.

Merely seeing pictures of coffee or thinking about coffee can increase arousal, heart rates, and make people more focused. The effects are not as strong as actually drinking coffee of course, but they are still noticeable.

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: The key idea is that we and society hold various beliefs and associations with our foods and beverages. Foods and beverages don’t just nourish us, but their meanings have an impact on our behaviours and how we think. So we found that, because coffee is associated with arousal, simply seeing coffee can increase arousal. Other research (not ours) have shown that meat can be “masculine,” and so eating meat makes people feel more masculine.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: As suggested above, there are many meanings that we assign to foods and beverages – coffee and meat are just a few examples. What about energy drinks? They are also commonly drunk to stay awake. Our findings may suggest that, to the detriment of Red Bull’s sales and profits, merely seeing a can of Red Bull could, potentially, stimulate people – even if only a little bit.

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: Our research suggests a “coffee placebo effect,” much like the placebo effect in the medicine and pharmaceutical literature. But this doesn’t mean that you can just stare at a picture of coffee online all day and think you will stay awake.

Knowingly trying to do so won’t work. These effects – and the mental meanings we assign to foods and beverages – are subconscious. Passing by a coffee should could make you a little bit alert, however, without having to go in. Perhaps a good thing because too much caffeine can also be bad for your health!

Citation: Eugene Y. Chan, Sam J. Maglio. Coffee cues elevate arousal and reduce level of construal. Consciousness and Cognition, 2019; 70: 57 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2019.02.007 

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